There’s often a lot of chatter around the subject of sulfites in wine. People say they’re allergic to sulfites or that they give them a headache, congestion, etc. Those things might be true, but chances are the source originates elsewhere. Read on to clear up your questions.
Rob Stuart, owner and winemaker of R. Stuart Winery, says, “Sulfur has been added to wines for all of modern history, it helps to keep wine fresh and sterile, free from bad bacteria and strands of yeast that could damage the quality of the wine.”
At R. Stuart, we add very minimal sulfites to our wine throughout the winemaking process. First, in the vineyard, then at the winery when our grapes first arrive at harvest and finally, directly after our wines finish malolactic fermentation. “Sulfur is the only thing we add to our wines, and in very minimal amounts, using only as much as we need to make great wines,” said Rob.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about sulfur is that it’s a natural byproduct of fermentation – therefore there is no such thing as a sulfite free wine. Rob says, “all wines are fermented with yeast and all yeast produce sulfur naturally.”
For someone who may have a severe allergy to sulfites – less than 1% of the world’s population – wine should probably not be your beverage. However, for the rest of us, “we add such minimal amounts of sulfites to our wine, that it really doesn’t have any negative effects, but rather positive effects that improve the quality and longevity of the wine, since it acts as a natural preservative,” said Rob.
So what about those who say that sulfites in wine cause headaches? Rob explained, “headaches are not caused by the sulfites in wine. It’s more likely that the alcohol or histamines in red wine are what’s causing your headaches.” Some foods actually contain more sulfites than wine, including dried fruit (think raisins and apricots), which contains over 2,000 ppm (parts per million) compared to our wine, which contains just 100 ppm.
At R. Stuart Winery, caring for our wines starts in the vineyards. An important part of vineyard management is spraying the vines with sulfur periodically throughout the growing process. Rob said, “since we live in an environment that is generally quite rainy, we spray every 7-10 days. That’s pretty typical of vineyards in the Willamette Valley.” The purpose of spraying sulfur on the vines is to prevent mildew from occurring, which can eat away at the vines and become a real problem if you don’t stay ahead of it. We spray every week or so because rain usually washes the sulfur away, and then we have to start again. Rob said, “We don’t spray vines during the winter months because the vines are dormant and the temperature is cooler, therefore mildew isn’t much of a problem. We begin spraying in the spring and stop after the grapes reach 13 brix (sugar level), which is when we no longer have to worry about mildew negatively affecting the health of the vineyard.”
Once the grapes are harvested and arrive at the winery, we add up to 100 ppm of sulfur to the wines. “We do this to kill any potential bad bacteria.” said Rob. Lastly, 10 ppm of sulfites are added to each barrel of our red wines after they go through malolactic fermentation to keep the wine fresh and prevent oxidation, which could cause wine to taste like vinegar if not treated properly.
The minimal amount of sulfur we add to our wines allows them to become everything they were meant to be, which is a true reflection of the Willamette Valley’s beautiful fruit and terroir.